Meet Clayton Whitt, a PhD student specializing in socio-cultural anthropology. Born and raised in California, Clayton completed his undergraduate degree in social sciences with a minor in Spanish at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. After graduation, he joined the Peace Corps as a basic sanitation volunteer and spent two years working in western Bolivia on a well drilling project. Clayton later moved to Washington, DC to work in the non-profit sector doing grant writing, marketing and communications before settling in Vancouver for his PhD studies.
Why did you choose to pursue Anthropology as a career?
My aspiration, when I was younger, was to be a writer of some sort – a journalist, a novelist, a poet. I wasn’t sure how to pursue it; I just knew that my passion was writing. As my education continued, I was introduced to the tools offered by the different social sciences for exploring and coming to a better understanding of humanity in all its breadth and diversity. What convinced me to pursue sociocultural anthropology specifically was when I realized that it was a great place for these two interests to come together. Anthropology is a bridge of sorts between the humanities and the rest of the social sciences – we often picture anthropologists out in the field, but so much of the hard work is done behind the keyboard. The final piece to fall into place was my experience in Bolivia as a Peace Corps volunteer. There were so many questions that came up while I was there, ideas that I wanted to pursue further, and I realized that one of the best ways to do this would be to do a Ph.D. research project there.
Why did you choose UBC’s Anthropology graduate studies program?
I was drawn generally by the strong reputation of anthropology at UBC and specifically by the opportunity to work with my supervisor, Gastón Gordillo. Having the chance to live in such a beautiful city and meet and work with so many great people has also helped!
What are your research interests?
I’m interested broadly in how people in an agricultural community in the western highlands of Bolivia are experiencing and reacting to different environmental problems. More specifically, I’m interested in the more subtle, day-to-day bodily experiences of living and dealing with climate change and water pollution, how people express their perceptions and conceptions of these changes, how these experiences are reflected in local politics, and how other processes like economic and political change and out-migration intersect with these environmental problems. I was lucky to find that the people where I carried out my fieldwork were enthusiastic about the project and happy to have me around – as long as I didn’t mind picking up a shovel now and then.
What do you enjoy and find challenging as a UBC Anthropology graduate student?
More than anything, I enjoy having the right mixture of guidance and latitude from my supervisor and committee. They provide me with excellent guidance throughout the research stages and detailed feedback on my proposals and drafts, but they really have let me take on the project in my own way. Most challenging, I think, is the scale of the Ph.D. dissertation writing process and the endurance required to get through it. It’s a challenge to strike the right balance between taking the time the work needs and making progress toward the finish line. I might get this balance right just about the time I finish!
What are the most valuable things you have learned and do you have any anthropology-related accomplishments you’re proud of?
I’ve learned so much over the last five years – I have a hard time picturing myself now when I first started here. There have been so many great lessons, but the most valuable one has been that Ph.D. projects are built out of perseverance more than anything else.
I am immensely grateful that during my time here I managed to secure funding for my graduate studies from the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships and for my fieldwork through a Wenner-Gren Foundation Dissertation Fieldwork Grant.
What advice would you give to a person interested in pursuing graduate studies in Anthropology?
First, if you’re going for a Ph.D., don’t forget when you’re designing your research proposal that you may end up working on this over the next six or seven years or even longer – so pick something close to your heart! All graduate students have a tumultuous relationship, at times, with their research and writing, but it makes all the difference to have a project that you can deeply care about for the long haul. With that said, be open to new opportunities and avenues that open up along the road – I know that for my project, thanks to advice from my supervisor and committee, conversations with my colleagues, conferences I have attended, articles I have read, etc., my thinking on it has shifted a lot since I started working on it, and the project is all the stronger for it. I guess what I mean is that it is important to develop a strong yet flexible vision for where you want to take your research.